We’re just over two months in to this new year, and though February proved to be something of a non-starter, I’m feeling very optimistic about what 2018 is going to bring in terms of k-pop.
I feel like I spent much of 2017 (and some of 2016) railing against Westernized trends that seemed to have taken hold over many of the year’s comebacks. At a certain level, it wasn’t even one specific trend that irked me (though there were a few that definitely popped up more often). It was the fact that k-pop had to be beholden to trends at all. The k-pop I first fell in love with felt thrillingly free from genre restrictions, pulling from anywhere and everywhere along the musical spectrum as long as it sounded cool.
As the industry has secured a greater international foothold, it feels as if it’s endured some growing pains. How much of the idol world needs to directly appeal to foreign tastes? How does k-pop ensure its sense of uniqueness in a rapidly globalizing music landscape? In my opinion, 2017 tilted too far towards the generic. I feel that 2018 will be the year things start to balance out.
We haven’t yet seen a complete sea change in this year’s title tracks, but when it comes to b-sides it feels like there’s a certain amount of experimentation brewing. Many of 2018’s early standouts have been album tracks that blend sounds from k-pop’s 2009-2013 third generation with more modern touches. We’re seeing a resurgence of classic producers like Yoo Young-Jin and Sweetune, and less of the copy-and-paste tropical production that was ubiquitous last year.
With the impending release of NCT’s first full-length album, SM Entertainment has been leading the industry’s experimental charge. The group’s songs don’t sound like the kind of pre-packaged hits that the agency could easily purchase, but like wild diversions and mash-ups that borrow from trends while simultaneously subverting them. This is what k-pop has always done best, and what it needs to keep doing in order to secure its longevity.
Many argue over whether “k-pop” can be considered a genre unto itself, but I’ve always thought of it more as a series of musical touchstones and philosophies — pulling liberally from both the East and the West without restriction in how the various elements are assembled. It’s high concept, wonderfully visual and rapidly evolving. Here’s to the rest of the year following through on the promise of these past few months.